one green planet
one green planet
vegan burger true price of a cheeseburger

The MOGO (most good) Principle

Every day we make myriad choices. We choose what to wear and eat and which products to use. For most people, the primary factors that determine these choices are desires and resources. Most of us buy what we buy and do what we do based on what we want and can afford.

Meanwhile, our planet is warming, species are becoming extinct at an escalating and alarming rate, children are trafficked, sweatshops proliferate, and a trillion sentient animals are killed every year across the globe for food. All this is happening because of our daily choices. Given the many entrenched, destructive and cruel systems that pervade our world, unless we consciously and compassionately make daily decisions with human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection in mind, many of our choices will cause preventable destruction and harm.

The good news is that each of us can make different choices by adding new criteria to our choicemaking beyond desire and affordability, and these new criteria can launch us on a path that is not only more restorative and humane but also more meaningful, joyful and healthy.

This column will look at the true price, beyond the monetary cost, of common, everyday items and ask these two questions:

  1. What are the effects, both positive and negative, of this item on you, other people, animals, and the environment?
  2. What alternatives would do the most good and the least harm to you, other people, animals, and the environment?

Making choices using these two questions enables you to live according to the MOGO (most good) principle (described in my book, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life) and helps you to contribute to a healthier, happier life not only for yourself but also for all whom your choices affect.

The True Price of a cheeseburger

We eat many times each day, and there is no other daily choice that has a bigger impact on ourselves, other people, animals, and the environment than what foods we put into our bodies.

One of the staples of the western, industrialized diet is the ubiquitous cheeseburger. Many people know that cheeseburgers aren’t the healthiest of food choices. Some have heard that cheeseburgers take a hefty environmental toll. Animal protection advocates are aware of the cruelty in the beef and dairy industries. A few know about the human rights abuses that occur on industrial farms and in slaughterhouses. So what is the true price of a cheeseburger?

The effects on you

Let’s start with the positive effects of a cheeseburger. Most people eat cheeseburgers at fast food restaurants. They are convenient, tasty (at least to many people), inexpensive (because we pay for them through subsidies financed by our tax dollars), and filling.

The negative impacts on us occur over time, so we don’t notice them when we consume a burger, but eating a diet that regularly includes cheeseburgers can lead, over time, to heart disease, strokes, various cancers, weight gain and obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, and even impotence. Regular intake of high fat, high cholesterol foods such as cheeseburgers has been implicated in the major diseases of our time, killing around half a million people every year in the United States according to numerous epidemiological studies.

The effects on other people

The primary positive effect of cheeseburgers on other people is jobs. The production of cheeseburgers (like the production of all foods) requires many hands and many employment opportunities. Ironically, because of the health implications of a diet that includes many cheeseburgers many healthcare practitioners are also employed.

The negative effects on other people also largely revolve around jobs. While fast food work is plentiful, it is low paying, and slaughterhouse work is considered the most dangerous in the U.S. with kill lines sped up to such a rate that serious injuries are commonplace. Because many slaughterhouse workers are undocumented and without health insurance, these injuries often go untreated or wind up being treated in costly emergency rooms.

People are also negatively affected because of costs involved in treating preventable diseases. The U.S. spends more per person on healthcare than any other nation, and those with health insurance are footing the bill with high premiums as are we all through our taxes.

There are many other effects on people as well. Conditions for workers on factory farms are often brutal, and the public health impacts of industrialized farms include food contamination, the overuse of antibiotics, and disease.

The effects on animals

Often cheeseburgers come from older dairy cows who are no longer producing enough milk to be considered profitable enough to keep alive. In modern, intensive dairies (which supply the cheese and the flesh for the vast majority of cheeseburgers, and to which I’ll refer in this brief analysis), cows are impregnated annually. Their young are normally taken away within twenty-four hours (causing cows to bellow out for days when their babies are, essentially, kidnapped from them), and the milk meant for the calves is then taken for human consumption. If the calf is female she’ll be raised to be a dairy cow like her mother. If he is male, he will likely become veal. Many are familiar with the milk-fed veal industry, which chains calves in stalls so small they cannot turn around and deprives them of exercise (which would make their flesh more tough). Fed an iron-deficient diet (that keeps their flesh pale), these baby animals are then forced with electric prods, at around four months old, to walk on their atrophied legs to the trucks that will take them to slaughter. Meanwhile, their mothers are forced to produce 6-12 times the amount of milk they would normally produce for their own young, which is why half of the dairy cows in the U.S. wind up with mastitis, a painful udder infection necessitating antibiotics. After years of such abuse, many cows are lame.

The reason I have failed to mention the positive effects on animals is that it is difficult to find any, unless one considers being born – even into a life of such suffering –positive.

The effects on the environment

Once again, it is difficult to come up with a positive effect on the environment. Cattle production is considered by many scientists to be one of the most environmentally destructive of all human endeavors. The U.N. has declared animal agriculture a greater contributor to global warming than transportation, and cows in particular – producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas – are considered the most environmentally destructive of farmed animals. Cattle production uses enormous quantities of water and produces massive amounts of manure, much of which ends up polluting rather than fertilizing. And cattle production in Central and South America, which supplies the flesh for many burgers in the U.S., is a prime contributor of rainforest destruction.

There are other environmental impacts as well, including the amount of land used to grow feed for farmed animals, which far exceeds the amount of land needed to grow crops directly for human consumption, and pesticide and fertilizer use on feedcrops, which contaminates rivers and streams and is largely responsibly for the current dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

What are the MOGO alternatives?

There are many everyday items, such as computers and cell phones that have significant negative consequences and for which there are few viable MOGO alternatives, but fortunately the alternatives to a cheeseburger are plentiful. Choosing an organic veggie burger is the most obvious alternative, but using the following criteria for all our food choices will, in general, do the most good and the least harm to ourselves, other people, animals, and the environment.

As often as possible, choose foods that are:

  • Locally, sustainably, and organically produced
  • Produced through fair trade practices
  • Produced without the abuse of animals
  • Plant-based
  • Unprocessed
  • Not overly packaged, and if packaged, only in recycled and recyclable materials
  • Low in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • Produced without refined sugars and without hydrogenated vegetable oils
  • Made from whole grains rather than refined grains
  • In season

You can make the choices above by joining a food co-op, cooperative buying club or CSA; by shopping at natural foods supermarkets; visiting farmers’ markets, and/or by growing some of your own food.

Bon appétit!

Resources for learning more



  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (Back Bay Books, 2010)
  • The Food Revolution by John Robbins (Conari Press, 2002)
  • Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser (Harper Perennial, 2005)
  • The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (Rodale Books, 2007)
  • The China Study by T. Colin Cambell and Thomas Campbell II (BenBella Books, 2006)